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Discovering Some Gold in Mathis' Years at Mercury

*** JOHNNY MATHIS "The Global Masters" Columbia Legacy

May 23, 1997|ROBERT HILBURN

When most record collectors think of Johnny Mathis, they think of Columbia Records. That's the label that released the signature Mathis hits in the '50s, including "Chances Are" and "It's Not for Me to Say"--records that kept the pop ballad tradition alive in the midst of the rock 'n' roll revolution.

Between 1957 and 1963, Mathis had 18 Top 40 singles and 23 consecutive Top 40 albums on Columbia. He was such a commercial force that two of the albums, "Johnny's Greatest Hits" and "Heavenly," not only reached No. 1, but each also stayed on the Top 200 charts for more than five years.

However, Mathis' sales had become sluggish by the time his Columbia contract expired in 1963 and he switched to Mercury Records in hopes of jump-starting his career.

During a busy four years at Mercury, Mathis recorded 11 albums, but they were only moderately successful. Only one album, "The Shadow of Your Smile" in 1966, cracked the Top 10 and none of his singles made the Top 40.

So it's not surprising that Mathis returned in 1967 to Columbia, where he remains. There was apparently so little demand for the Mercury recordings all these years that it is only now that any of them are available in CD.

And how did Mathis sound during his brief defection from Columbia?

Surprisingly good, judging by the Mercury tracks gathered in this two-disc set from Columbia Legacy.

In trying to appeal to the adult-album audience rather than the teen-driven singles market, Mathis turned frequently to film and show tunes. Among the songs included in this set: "Call Me Irresponsible," "Laura," "Hello, Dolly!" and "Somewhere My Love."

Never known as an especially adventurous vocalist, Mathis gives us, in the best of these recordings, far more tailored interpretations of the songs than you'd expect from a middle-of-the-road pop singer.

Rather than simply glide through "April Love" the way Pat Boone did in his 1957 hit version, for instance, Mathis brings more of the tension and uncertainty that writers Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster no doubt intended for the ballad.

Similarly, Mathis injects character into his versions of songs that are so familiar most singers treat them as simply sing-alongs, such as "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)."

To fill 11 albums, Mathis must have recorded some 100 tracks for Mercury, so it's a shame just 24 are included here. There was room on the two discs for another hour's worth of music. If this budget-priced set does well, maybe Columbia Legacy and Mathis--who personally selected the tunes for "The Global Masters"--will team up on a volume two.

If so, Columbia Legacy should put together a more comprehensive booklet, one that not only gives more information about the recording sessions (including arrangers), but also deals on a personal level with Mathis' feelings about the material.

*

* 1/2 Various artists, "The Country Wedding Album," Scotti Bros. This package may work just fine for those Las Vegas chapels that offer theme weddings. The music--which combines classical wedding marches with such country hits as the Judds' "Love Can Build a Bridge" and Keith Whitley's "When You Say Nothing at All"--would serve as a fitting background for a chapel's country wedding option.

But the album makes little sense for a couple planning their own wedding--who wants to listen on this special day to a generic music collection? If you can't agree on one special album, just have a buddy make a tape of your favorite songs.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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